LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Gloria Campos swifts through 90's family photos the way an amateur poker player might gaze at their deck. She smiles at the “good cards” --photographs of all the best times (or maybe she's just laughing at the funny hair). When she comes across the unfamiliar cards, her eyebrows become pinched together, but only because she's now playing the Who-Is-This-And-Where-Was-This game. Sometimes her mom, Gladys, offers a “Remember? It's tío so and so” remark. But otherwise, the UC Santa Barbara alumna relies on the memory deck she's been dealt of her brief time in Peru.
Gloria's family fled the Southern American country in 1996 when she was 3 years-old. The undocumented immigrant has only been to Peru one other time after that. In 2015 she obtained a travel permit through a program now cancelled under the Trump administration.
But in the summer of 2018, the Campos' found another way back without actually leaving their home in Los Angeles –a trip via virtual reality.
“To be honest, it wasn't what I was expecting,” Gladys shared in Spanish. “Yes I've seen 3D videos and all that, but the 360 experience really made me feel like I was actually walking in my mom's house. It really feels so... real.”
“It was very emotional for me to see my grandma and to be there but not really be able to really have a conversation with her,” Gloria's voice cracked as she remembered the experience, adding that it was also hard for her to see her mother's reaction to the VR visit.
“It was weird and I was feeling just kind of sad –like okay, [my mom is] there, she's seeing where she grew up and stuff, but she's not actually there.”
In a video produced by The Family Reunions Project –the group that facilitated the VR trip for the Campos' –Gladys is visibly upset as she “walks” around her old house and sees her mother.
“Mamá,” she cries out in the video, not being able to actually hug or talk to her mother.
This was one of the last times the Campos' saw abuelita América.
“I miss my mom,” Gladys opens up. “She passed away in November. It pains me that I was not able to be at her funeral.”
The mother of three says they overstayed their visas, at first hoping to fly back to Lima, Peru within the first two years, or “when the economy there got better". It didn't.
More than two decades later, the Campos' are now part of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
To Alvaro Morales, co-founder of The Family Reunions Project, Gloria and Gladys' story was all too familiar. Morales, a Peruvian immigrant himself, had experienced family separation.
“I wanted to create a way to kind of bridge the gap, bridge the distance and allow immigrant families to feel a little closer to home,” he shared. “The Family Reunions Project started as an idea, an excitement, for what virtual reality could do specifically for undocumented families.”
Morales traveled to Peru in August of 2017 to film for the Campos' and create what he calls a “virtual postcard”.
“In many ways I was a delivery man of whatever messages that they were trying to convey and send to their families across the border,” he explained.
While the entrepreneur knows no virtual reality experience can take the place of an actual visit, he's hoping the project will help others take an in-depth look at the issues surrounding undocumented families.
“It gives them a new perspective,” he said.
For now, the Campos' flip through old photos reminiscing about the good times –and wait.
“I think I will go back one day,” Gladys says.
The Campos' were one of 16 families who've participated in The Family Reunions Project over the last two years. The project founders have traveled to Peru, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala to connect undocumented immigrants in the U.S with their relatives back home.